Wait, where did my show go?

02:48, Oct 25 2012

Picture this. The final aromas from dinner - a lamb korma from your favourite Indian restaurant, accompanied by some garlic naan and onion bhaji - waft around the lounge as you settle on the couch, cup of tea in hand, ready to take in a couple of shows. You decide to watch an episode of the funniest comedy on television, New Girl*, and hit the Planner button on your MySky remote. It hits you as you scan the programme description: you've recorded a repeat. Dammit!

This was the scene at my place on Tuesday night. I'm sure similar scenes were happening around the country as people tuned in for a new episode of New Girl, or How I Met Your Mother, or The Simpsons and Family Guy on Sunday.

But if your immediate reaction is "damn you, Four, damn you to hell!" then I'm here to tell you that you're dead wrong.

Occasional repeats and gaps in programming are side-effects of fast-tracking shows from the USA. In America, the Fall TV season runs from September to May - most high-profile shows run in this period, including (you guessed it) New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, The Simpsons and Family Guy. Most high-profile shows also take a week off every now and then, including (you guessed it) New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, The Simpsons and Family Guy.

If we want shows quickly, then the stop-start nature of American broadcasting is something we'll have to put up with. If you don't like it ... well, we could go back to waiting until February for new seasons of our favourite shows.

Mediaworks TV spokeswoman Rachel Lorimer explained it like this: "We are following the US broadcast patterns - so when American networks put a series on hiatus (as is routinely done to accommodate other programming, such as live sports coverage, or even just because they're waiting on new episodes) we will either take a break here or run repeats from previous seasons until a new episode becomes available."


Lorimer also points out that TV3 and Four have adjusted their programme guide information to include season and episode numbers, to make it easier to track where the new season is up to**, in addition to using the Fast Four logo in online and broadcast promos to signify a brand new episode of the show is coming. It's also worth pointing out that Homeland, being fast-tracked on TV3, is not going to experience gaps: only broadcast networks operate in this manner, while cable channels - like Showtime, who make Homeland - tend to just play all their episodes in one big chunk.

Why do American networks schedule their shows in this way? As The Guardian's TV blogger Anna Pickard pointed out a couple of years ago when fast-tracking began in the UK, "American TV scheduling is as incomprehensible to a newcomer as a Rubiks Cube is to a squirrel with a migraine." There is very little that makes sense about the US television industry, not least of which is why the season runs for most of the year. As for gaps in programming, there are a few reasons we can look at, without needing to spend five years doing a media studies degree with a major in American broadcasting.

One reason is that programmers make room for sports coverage - NFL football seasons runs from September until early February, while MLB baseball holds the World Series in October, both of which can cause occasional gaps.

Another reason is that USA programmers tend to lump new episodes around set "sweeps" periods in November, February and May. During these "sweeps" periods, handwritten diaries - yes, handwritten diaries - are kept by over two million viewers, much more than the number who provide ratings information at other times of year, meaning information from this period is considered more accurate (this is also the time when major scheduling decisions are made and advertising rates are set). Concentrating shows around these times means gaps during the rest of the season.

Of course, this information doesn't really help us here in little ol' New Zealand. TV3 and Four don't have the power to get episodes of shows ahead of the USA, for reasons involving words like "exclusivity". Neither does TVNZ. So our only real options are to put up with the gaps, or go back to delaying shows for six months before we start watching them.

I know what I'd prefer. Bring me new episodes as fast as possible.

What do you think of gaps between new episodes of American shows? Did you notice that this week's New Girl was a repeat? Did it bother you? Are you happy to put up with the gaps if it means getting shows faster? And have you given up downloading any of these shows in favour of watching them on television?

(*) Please don't take exception to this claim now: I'll be explaining exactly why I think New Girl is the funniest comedy on television when I review the second season (so far) at some point next week. Hold your abuse until then.

(**) A very welcome change indeed - now if only TVNZ and Prime would follow suit.

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